Despite losing out 3-1 on aggregate to Japanese giants Urawa Reds in the AFC Champions League final, Sepahan of Iran still make the journey to the Far East for December's FIFA Club World Cup as Asia's runners-up. The Hazfi Cup holders will now open their campaign against Oceanian champions Waitakere United on 7 December, where victory will set up a rematch with their Champions League conquerors and a chance for Luca Bonacic's team to exact some revenge.
The Esfahan-based club boast a relatively short history, only coming into being in 1944, but it is one full of sterling achievements. They first competed in the Iranian Pro League (IPL) in 2001/2002, finishing ninth, but the very next season this emerging side swept past the likes of Esteghlal and Pirouzi to capture the league title and end the Tehran-based teams' monopoly on the championship.
Having become the first club outside the capital to be crowned Iranian champions, Sepahan embarked on first venture into continental competition when they participated in the 2003 AFC Champions League, a campaign that ended in disappointment when they failed to progress beyond the group stage.
The years since have proved problematic domestically, but this season, their third foray into Asia's club showpiece proved more successful than anyone could have dared hope, with Sepahan making history by becoming the first Iranian team to reach the final of the Champions League.
The road to Japan
Last season saw Sepahan generally fail to live up to expectations as they were left languishing in the lowly position of seventh in the table. Consolation came, however, when they won the Hazfi Cup for the second time, and with it a place in the Champions League. Subsequently, Sepahan were left as Iran's sole flag-bearers in the competition when Esteghlal were disqualified, and they got off to a perfect start with a 2-1 home defeat of Syrian side Al Ittihad. That was then followed by a solitary-goal win over Riyadh giants Al Shabab, Seyed Salehi scoring the only goal seven minutes from time.
Next came back-to-back fixtures against the inaugural winners Al Ain of United Arab Emirates, where Sepahan were dealt a heavy blow, losing the first leg 3-2 away before only salvaging a point in the return meeting with a 1-1 draw.
However, in the crucial penultimate match against Al Ittihad, Bonacic's team pulled off a sensational 5-0 win, their Iraqi midfielder Abdulwahab Abolheil opening the scoring after four minutes before Mohammed Noori and Emad Mohammed each netted twice to put them within touching distance of the knockout stage.
With their destiny fully in their own hands, Sepahan entered the last group match against Al Shabab needing a draw to advance, and they secured the result they needed in dramatic fashion, Al Shabab defender Hassan Maaz scoring an own goal to send the Iranians into the last eight.
Sepahan had a tough test against the attack-minded Japanese side Kawasaki Frontale in the quarter-final clash, whose speed caused them real headaches. Yet neither side could find a goal over two legs and it was the resilient Sepahan that won after penalty shootout.
Having comfortably seen off UAE's Al Wahda 3-1 on aggregate in the semi-final, Sepahan progressed to the final with hopes high that their solid defence would provide the basis for an assault on the title. However, their cautious approach failed against Urawa Reds, who breached the Sepahan rearguard three times en route to clinching the title by an identical two-goal margin.
With the FIFA Club World Cup just around the corner, Sepahan's talented players are eager to make their mark on the global stage when they rub shoulders with some of the world's biggest stars.
Plotting the team's attacks from midfield is their creative captain Maharram Navidkia, who produced a series of brilliant displays to help Sepahan reach the Champions League final. The former Iran Olympic skipper won a gold medal with Iran at the 2002 Asian Games before helping Sepahan, his hometown club, to an historic Iranian league championship success later the same year.
His talents didn't go unnoticed as he earned a move to German side Bochum in 2004. However, his hopes of making waves in the Bundesliga were hampered by a knee injury sustained in an Olympic qualifier again Korea Republic and he went on to make only a handful of appearances for the German outfit.
After returning to Sepahan last summer, the 25-year-old showed everyone just what he had learned from his experiences in Germany, captaining the team to a Hazfi Cup win. Although he has been troubled by injury, Navidkia proved he can still be a hugely influential figure with a starring role in the semi-final first leg victory over Al Wahda, when he scored five minutes from time.
The team's attacking line, meanwhile, will be spearheaded by Iraqi forward Emad Mohammed, who figured prominently in the Iraq Olympic side that reached the semi-finals at Athens 2004.
The man in charge
A renowned maverick known for his explosive character and straightforward speech, Luka Bonacic is also famed for his ability to get the best out of the players under his control. He first came to prominence in 1996 when was voted coach of the year in Croatia in 1996 after guiding the unfashionable NK Varteks to the national cup final.
However, in his 18 years as a club coach in Europe, Bonacic failed to make an impact on a major continental competition. His move to Sepahan in 2006 gave him the chance to put that right. He certainly enjoyed immediate success, guiding the Iranian club to two successive Hazfi Cup wins in 2006 and 2007, before taking them to the final of the continent's prestigious Champions League.
Now, with Sepahan's FIFA Club World Cup debut against Waitakere United less than three weeks away, their experienced coach has quickly put the disappointment of missing out on the continental laurels behind him to focus on preparing his players. "First of all we must prepare well for the game against the team from New Zealand," he said. "I don't expect too much against the New Zealanders, they have the same quality as us."
Founded in 1944, the club was originally known as Shahin Esfahan and enjoyed an official attachment to the more popular Tehran-based club Shahin FC. It wasn't until 1967, when this association ended, that its name was changed to Sepahan. The club is located in Esfahan, the geographical heart of Iran which bears the legacies of the ancient and modern spice and silk trade routes. Aside from this, Esfahan is also remembered as the once capital of the Persian Empire.
Despite this historic reputation, however, the city had long lived in the shadow of the modern capital Tehran in the world of Iranian football until Sepahan's milestone success in the 2002/2003 IPL.
Sepahan had spent many years in the local Esfahan leagues before the club was purchased by Siman factory in 1993. A new round of partnership change took place in 2000, with the current Foolad Mill taking over. The new move proved to be a successful one as the club has been receiving sustained and solid financial support, which enabled them to progress to the top flight within a couple of short years.
|12||ABDUL WAHAB ABU AL HAIL|
|28||Ehsan HAJI SAFI|
|23||Mohamad SEYED SALEHI|